Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring  2011    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  15, Issue  1

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy

format   requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.


This article should not be reprinted for inclusion in any publication for sale without author's explicit permission. Anyone may view, reproduce or store copy of this article for personal, non-commercial use as allowed by the "Fair Use" limitations (sections 107 and 108) of the U.S. Copyright law. For any other use and for reprints, contact article's author(s) who may impose usage fee.. See also  electronic version copyright clearance CURRENT VERSION COPYRIGHT © MMX  AUTHOR & ACADEMIC EXCHANGE QUARTERLY



A “Continuum” Model of Collaboration in ESL


Laura H. Baecher, Hunter College, City University of New York, NY

Angela B. Bell, University of North Dakota, ND


Baecher, Ed. D. is Assistant Professor in the MA TESOL Program, and Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Teaching & Learning



English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers tend to be placed in settings that demand collaboration.  This article highlights results from two independent research projects that examined the collaborative practices of ESL teachers working with content teachers in a wide range of K-12 public school settings. The authors jointly constructed the Collaboration Continuum Model, which suggests that collaboration can be viewed in varying degrees, from limited to extensive, and from formal to informal.



Teachers are known to enter the profession with a desire for autonomy, envisioning the classroom as an arena to exercise independent decision-making regarding students’ learning goals, activities, and assessments (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009; Lortie, 1975).  English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers are no exception, despite their roles, which tend to place them in settings that demand interdependence. This article highlights results from two research projects which both examined the collaborative practices of ESL teachers working with content teachers in a wide range of K-12 public school settings.  Seeing how collaboration in these settings was both dynamic and fluid, the authors then jointly constructed a model to represent collaborative teaching practice as a spectrum. The result is the Collaboration Continuum Model, which suggests that collaboration can be viewed in varying degrees, from limited to extensive, and from informal to formal. The purpose of this article is to help all teachers involved in collaborative planning, as well as those who must support collaborative instruction, to recognize the wide range of possibilities that exist, in order to recognize its complexity as well as the validity of its multiple forms. 


Collaborative Planning and Teaching in the ESL Context

Today’s ESL K-12 teachers work with English Language Learners (ELLs) in one of several scenarios:  as a “push-in”, “pull-out”, “co-teacher” or “self-contained” teacher (McKeon, 1993). However, since their principal role is to provide access, through language skills, to content-area subjects, all of these teaching models require collaboration. At the elementary level, most language learners are provided specialized English services through a push-in or a pull-out program. In a pull-out program, these children leave the mainstream classroom to be taught by an ESL-endorsed teacher for part of the day. While no empirical evidence indicates which model provides the most effective instruction for learning English and/or content, against the backdrop of increased academic expectations for all students, push-in programs have become increasingly more prevalent (Zehr, 2008).  This seems to be based on the belief that in a push-in model, language learners will not miss what their mainstream peers are learning. As a result of this recent shift towards push-in programs, collaboration has become a key topic in teacher education and professional development.


Need for collaborative teaching for English language learners

The literature generally advocates that collaboration between content-area and ESL teachers is needed in order to enhance the academic achievement of diverse learners (Díaz-Rico & Weed, 2006; Gottlieb, 2006; Holcomb, 2009; Walker, Shafer, Iiams, 2004). Goddard, Goddard, and Tschannen-Moran (2007) found “when teachers have opportunities to engage in professional discourse, they can build upon their unique content, pedagogical, and experiential knowledge to improve instruction” (p. 880). In addition, Theoharis (2007) describes the social justice aspect of collaboration, calling for an inclusive instructional model rather than pulling out ELLs, which he believes is a practice that excludes an otherwise marginalized population. Collaboration between teachers is now regularly promoted as a way to improve student achievement (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2010).


Barriers to collaboration

Whenever collaboration is to be attempted, educators and scholars are cautioned to consider its complexities (McClure & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2010). Commonly, difficulties arise where institutional structures are lacking, in the form of time, resources, and administrator support (Murawski & Dieker, 2004).  The difficulties of moving from independent to interdependent planning and teaching are also common to all teachers attempting collaboration in their practice (Friend & Cook, 2003; Wild, Mayeaux & Edmonds, 2008).  Unique challenges are the differential status of ESL teachers and content teachers, with the latter seen as having more power, and hence more control in the relationship (Arkoudis, 2006; Creese, 2006; McClure & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2010); disparaging attitudes regarding non-English proficient students (Walker, Shafer & Iiams, 2004; Youngs & Youngs, 2001); and disparate approaches to instructional planning (Reeves, 2006). More models for what effective collaboration looks like as well as professional development and opportunities for dialogue regarding effective collaboration between ESL and content-area teachers have been called for (Davison, 2006; Dove & Honigsfeld, 2010).


Investigations of Collaboration in the ESL Context

While the literature is becoming richer regarding the complexities of collaborative teaching, the theoretical models of collaboration have by and large been constructed through the lens of the field of special education.  The following two research projects (Bell and Baecher) describe investigations which set out to document collaboration as it was being practiced in ESL K-12 settings to apply principles of collaboration developed by Friend and Cook (2010), who defined collaboration as predicated upon “direct interaction between at least two co-equal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal” ( p. 7).


Collaborative Practices at Four Elementary Schools (Bell)


Through qualitative grounded theory, the collaborative practices of content area and ESL teachers at four urban elementary schools were explored. The first was a pilot study at a school in the Midwest; three were in the eastern United States. The goal was to see if and how collaboration was taking place between mainstream and ESL teachers. For eight months, 12 teachers and two instructional assistants were shadowed, observed, and interviewed; five administrators were also interviewed.



Both formal and informal structures for collaboration were evident in the schools, yet in differing degrees, depending on the contextual conditions that existed at each individual school. Even within a school, an ESL teacher may have planned and co-taught extensively with one teacher and only consulted periodically with another, depending on the scheduling, personnel issues, and logistics of collaboration. Teachers who collaborated formally still relied upon the informal structures such as “checking in” or “stopping by” to make sure their immediate needs were met. For example, during one observation, a mainstream teacher “stopped by” the ESL teacher’s classroom to make sure she knew of a scheduling change for that day. When describing the collaboration that was occurring in the schools, it became evident that the collaboration could be demonstrated as a continuum from “informal” to “formal” (See Figure 1).


At one school, opportunities for formal collaboration were limited by a lack of time. Collaboration was described by one participant as “on the fly.” She stated, “We don’t have a scheduled time, so if I need something I’ll email ‘em or I’ll catch them in the hallway.” The consequence to this type of informal collaboration was that content-area and ESL teachers did not know what each others’ goals for their students were. Each assumed the other was working on certain standards with ELLs.

Teachers in the other three schools described formal, systematic structures supported by their administration. They were expected to collaborate during scheduled co-planning or Professional Learning Community (PLC) times. PLCs are teams focused on the improvement of student academic achievement by creating and sharing mutual goals. (Eaker, DuFour, & DuFour, 2002) Teachers who collaborated formally knew the goals of the other teachers with whom they worked. One participant described collaboration as “working closely with other people on a common goal.” During PLC sessions, there was an established protocol including an agenda and a facilitator. Teachers at these three schools mentioned their schools having “a culture of collaboration” in which both formal (established by administration) and informal (teacher-generated) collaboration were an integral part of their school day.


Collaborative Practices of K-12 ESL Teachers (Baecher)


In a teacher/university research project, 8 push-in and pull-out ESL teachers in K-12 settings in New York City public schools participated in a qualitative and quantitative research initiative that sought to better understand the way co-planning and co-teaching took place. These teachers tracked and documented their activities at their schools over a semester, described their co-teaching and co-planning situations, and then met to compare observations in a focus group interview.



Reports from participants indicated that co-planning was the exception rather than the rule, and that the degree of co-planning ranged from extensive to limited.  There were also many teachers who reported no co-planning, and in these cases the ESL teacher was left to “guess” what the content-area teacher’s goals and activities were to be. In these situations, we know the role of the ESL teacher is diminished, and the result is this teacher serves more as a classroom aide (Haynes, 2007). What emerged from the data was total co-planning, in which ESL and classroom/content teachers were equal partners, with equal responsibility for planning, teaching, and student learning outcomes, with shared workload in preparing lesson plans, designing materials, delivering instruction and working with students is quite far from the realities of schools that were settings for this research.


From the data collected, it began to appear that co-planning/co-teaching occurred on a continuum across schools and even within them.  Additionally, even at the individual teacher level, the experience of the ESL teachers was inconsistent, since the ability to co-plan ultimately rested on the relationship with the content-area teacher.  The desire to collaborate was a common theme, and participants described the ways in which they attempted to optimize co-planning opportunities, given the limitations of their contexts. In the data analysis, the two factors that most inhibited co-planning were (1) the lack of time for co-planning, and (2) the degree to which co-planning was highly personnel-dependent.


Scheduling/responsibilities of ESL teachers preclude collaboration

One of the key findings was that co-planning was infrequent. In most schools, co-planning did not occur as a direct result of the school administrators not having created a time for it to occur.  An indirect way that school administrators inhibited ESL teachers’ co-planning was the workload placed on them, in terms of compliance, testing, and reporting paperwork, and scheduling them to work with so many different classroom teachers that it would be impossible to thoroughly and consistently plan with them all.  For content-area teachers, these burdens prevent co-planning as well.  As observed by study participants:


Most communication that exists between the ESL teacher and classroom teacher (if communication exists at all) happens in a 30 second conversation in the hall prior to the start of the school day.  When these conversations occur, the ESL teacher is delighted, as it will prevent him from feeling TOTALLY like a 'deer in headlights' when he enters that classroom later in the day. 


Co-planning also became unrealistic when the ESL teacher was assigned to a large number of classroom teachers.  For these teachers, basic communication was a daily challenge:


In the last school I worked at, I was pushing into 9 classrooms/week in 6 different grade levels, including special education.  Working with so many teachers, it becomes almost impossible to have effective communication about what is going on in the classroom on a day-to-day basis.   ESL teachers are typically not invited to common planning (where it exists) and/or grade level meetings and so often have to 'go alone', basing instructional decisions on state standards, prior assessments, test prep materials that must be utilized, and individual student needs. 


Common planning meetings, or grade-level meetings, are systematic approaches to curriculum planning found in many schools, yet teachers reported not being able to attend due to their large caseload of students.


Collaboration is personnel dependent

ESL teachers reported that they found opportunities to co-plan and co-teach on an ad hoc basis, based primarily on their relationships with the content-area teachers.  Although schools overall lacked time and resources designated for co-planning, these teachers often found ways, great or small, to work with content-area teachers in spite of this lack of institutional support.  This occurred in proportion to the willingness or interest on the part of individual educators in the building.   The degree to which this co-planning occurred, then, mostly corresponded to the extent to which the ESL teacher had the opportunity to work with such educators. Participants in the study reported widely different opportunities to collaborate, with some content-area teachers more willing than others:


I have much more contact with my kids' classroom teachers this year, as I am more comfortable with them personally, they trust me a bit more, etc. etc. But some are more receptive to collaboration than others, of course, which is not fair for my kids who have the teachers who are more resistant.


In Figure 2, the findings are summarized and presented along a series of degrees, from extensive collaboration to limited.  These co-occurred within the same school and within a single teacher’s experience.  In other words, collaboration along the continuum occurred within each co-teaching relationship.

In the spirit of collaboration, results from these studies were compared and a model developed to reflect two different aspects of collaboration:  formal to informal, and limited to extensive.  These form a continuum of collaborative practice, as illustrated in Figure 3.  This model problematizes simple linear views of collaboration.  For example, a teacher might experience formal structures that engender extensive collaboration—yet it might rarely occur informally.  In other cases, teachers extensively collaborate, but without any formal supports.


Our research sought to situate emerging understandings about the nature of instructional collaboration, and in doing so, appears to have revealed even more questions.  These questions can be turned into helpful self-assessments for individual teachers, school administrators, and teacher educators.  As collaboration continues to be better understood in various contexts, the term will be further refined. However, if Friend and Cook’s definition is to be successfully manifested, then certainly the ESL and content-area teacher must be provided the conditions it entails:  equal status, common goals, and free-will in the process. One of the key outcomes of our studies points to the need for teacher education to address the complexities of collaboration in pre-service courses, and to provide continued attention and strategies for successful collaboration to in-service teachers through sustained professional development.  Attention to formats in which both ESL and content area teachers may plan, to the contextual conditions necessary to support collaboration, and communication strategies that will ensure equal and authentic dialogue (Chamberlin-Quinlisk, 2010; DelliCarpini, 2009), are innovations that may foster collaboration, to the benefit of students and teachers. What needs to be further understood is where most ESL and content-area teachers find themselves on the continuum, and ways to promote effective collaboration practices.





Arkoudis, S.  (2006). Negotiating the rough ground between ESL and mainstream teachers. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9, 415-433.

Chamberlin-Quinlisk, C. (2010). Cooperative learning as a method and model in second language teacher education. Intercultural Education, 21(3), 243-255.

Creese, A. (2006). Supporting talk? Partnership teachers in classroom interaction. International Journal of Bilingual Education & Bilingualism, 9(4), 434-453.

Davison, C. (2006). Collaboration between ESL and content teachers: How do we know when we are getting it right? International Journal of Bilingual Education, 9, 454-475.

DelliCarpini, M. (2009). Enhancing cooperative learning in TESOL teacher education. The entity from which ERIC acquires the content, including journal, organization, and conference names, or by means of online submission from the author.ELT Journal, 63(1), 42-50.

Díaz-Rico, L., & Weed, K. (2006). The cross-cultural, language, and academic

development Handbook: A complete K-12 reference guide (3rd ed.). Boston:


Dove, M., & Honigsfeld, A. (2010). ESL coteaching and collaboration: Opportunities to develop teacher leadership and enhance student learning.  TESOL Journal, 1(1), 3-22.

Eaker, R., DuFour, R., & DuFour, R. (2002). Getting started: Reculturing schools to become

 professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2010). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals

         (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Goddard, Y. L., Goddard, R. D., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007, April). A theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 887-896.

Gottlieb, M. (2006). Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges from language

            proficiency to academic achievement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hargreaves, A., &  Shirley, D. (2009). The persistence of presentism, Teachers College Record, 111(11), 2505-2534.

Haynes, J. (2007). Circle time: Two teachers can be better than one. Essential Teacher, 4(3).

Holcomb, E. L. (2009). Asking the right questions: Tools for collaboration and school       change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McClure, G., & Cahnmann-Taylor, M. (2010). Pushing back against push-in: ESOL teacher resistance and the complexities of coteaching. TESOL Journal 1.1

McKeon, D. (1993). ESL and bilingual program models. ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics. ED 362072.

Murawski, W. W., & Dieker, L. A. (2004). Tips and strategies for co-teaching at the secondary level. Teaching Exceptional Children, 30(5), 52-58.

Reeves, J. (2006). Secondary teacher attitudes toward including English-language learners in mainstream classrooms. The Journal of Educational Research, 99(3).

Theoharis, G. (2007, November). Cases of Inclusive ELL Services: New Directions for Social Justice Leadership. Paper presented at the 2007 UCEA Conference. Retrieved April 13, 2010 from

Walker, A., Shafer, J., & Iiams, M. (2004). “Not in my classroom”: Teacher attitudes towards English language learners in the mainstream classroom. NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 2(1), 130-160.

Wild, M., Mayeaux, A., & Edmonds, K.  (2008). TeamWork: Setting the stage for collaborative teaching, grades 5-9.  Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Youngs, C., & Youngs, G. (2001). Predictors of mainstream teachers’ attitudes toward ESL students. TESOL Quarterly 35(1), 97-118.

Zehr, M. (2008). Research on push-in vs. pull-out. Education Week, Retrieved August 25, 2010 from